Web Craft Masters: How Yoast’s Founder Built a Product Used on Millions of Websites
At SiteGround, we have the pleasure to host tens of thousands of businesses by remarkable entrepreneurs. They have great stories worth sharing and they’re all masters of their own craft. We are starting a series of interviews where we’ll feature how they got to where they are today. We hope their stories will inspire you to explore new ideas or methods in your own projects!
If you are a WordPress user, you have most probably used the popular Yoast SEO plugin, created by Joost de Valk, founder and CEO of Yoast. He is a developer, SEO specialist, and online marketer, actively involved in the WordPress community. For the start of our interview series, there’s no better person than Joost. We’re talking with him about SEO, his interesting story, and other different topics, so read on for what turned out to be an amazing interview!
You started Yoast 7 years ago as a hobby while working as an SEO and marketing consultant. Yoast has grown tremendously and it currently serves millions of websites. At which moment did it become so huge and why do you think it’s still the most popular SEO tool among WordPress users?
Joost: I created the company 7 years ago, but I started building WordPress plugins around 2006. Only about 6 years ago I really made one “WordPress SEO plugin”, later renamed Yoast SEO. This wasn’t the plan I had when I started the company. When I started Yoast, I was convinced I’d be freelancing all my life, not hiring any employees. That changed.
At some point, my wife said, “What you’re doing, all that support for WordPress SEO, in your spare time, is unsustainable.” She was right, as she often is. So I started developing premium extensions, first Video SEO, and later on, Yoast SEO Premium. People turned out to be willing to pay, and Yoast has been growing ever since.
As to why it’s still popular – because we keep making it better, we keep developing, we keep up to date with Google’s changes. We basically take away a large part of the work that technical SEO would be for site owners.
At Yoast, you have experience consulting companies like Facebook, eBay, The Guardian. How did that happen and what have you learned from your experience with consulting tech giants?
Joost: I’ve been in the large-site, corporate SEO world for over a decade. I started my career at an agency in the Netherlands where I was fortunate enough to work with some of the biggest brands in the Netherlands and learn the trade. Later on, as I was getting better and better at what I did and blogged about it, people started asking me for projects.
The Guardian, where I was responsible for the SEO part of the domain name change of guardian.co.uk to theguardian.com, was arguably one of the biggest projects I’ve ever had. It was also, as Google called it, the single largest domain migration they’d ever seen.
It went pretty smooth, without the usual traffic dip you see in those migrations. That led to more people wanting to hire me. Most of that was me though, which didn’t really scale. So in the last few years, we’ve decided to not do consulting anymore and focus on developing Yoast SEO.
How is bringing a product to the WordPress market different today than it was back when you started? What’s your advice to people looking to follow in your footsteps?
Joost: Just try it! Start building something that’s awesome. Think about your marketing model for a long time. Freemium is the easiest model by far for WordPress because the WordPress.org plugin repository can give you so many users so quickly. If you build something that makes people’s lives easier, they’ll often be willing to reward you for it later on.
For freemium to work, you need a pretty big group of users. I don’t think many products will ever get above 1-1.5% of free users converting to premium in the WordPress space. So you need 1,000 free users to get 10-15 paid users. That means your free product must be good, and your premium product must offer a good value-add on top of that.
You’ve recently started a campaign to help and motivate people to upgrade from old PHP versions, an initiative that SiteGround supports too. Could you explain why the newer PHP version is more beneficial to the clients? In your opinion, why don’t most hosting companies proactively upgrade their clients to newer PHP versions?
Joost: Updating PHP is hard, at least, that’s how people conceive it. But the gains are tremendous. A site that goes from PHP 5.2 to PHP 7 can easily become twice as fast, sometimes even four times faster than before. Nothing else you can do to your site will get you that kind of speed boost without an additional cost.
People (and hosts) are afraid that their software will break when they upgrade their PHP. They’re afraid that plugins won’t work, for instance. So far, in what we’ve seen, most people can upgrade without any work. It’s fairly trivial to test it, if you have cPanel access, on most hosts, you can just change it and see if your site still works. I’d say: go for it. Try it!
Let’s talk hosting, almost a year ago you decided to move to SiteGround Enterprise. How do you like the experience so far, and which part of the SiteGround services have you been most impressed with?
Joost: We love it. No other words for it. The SiteGround team that assists us and our team basically operate as one team. We have a pretty big setup:
- 2 load balancers/cache servers
- 2 database servers
- 5 web servers
- a machine with an ELK stack that serves as our logging server
- a caching server
You see, our hosting isn’t “just” yoast.com, it’s also hosting our update server for Yoast SEO and the other extensions, my.yoast.com, our customer portal and Yoast Academy, our e-learning environment with all our different SEO training courses.
The SiteGround team has been awesome in pushing the boundaries of what they know and what we know in terms of how we set up our servers. Let me give you an example.
We determine where you’re from when you get to our site, so we can give you our dollar or euro shop. We used to do this within WooCommerce, our e-commerce platform, but we now do this on the load balancers, within NGINX. This allows us to cache many more pages, and make the site much faster. It’s working on things like that and having the full support and knowledge of the SiteGround team behind us, that makes me so happy to work with them.
Lastly, what is one tool an SEO master cannot go without apart from Yoast SEO? 🙂
Joost: His or her brain. The secret sauce to SEO is in many, many cases to figure out what’s wrong with a site. This doesn’t even always have to be “strictly” SEO. Site structure, keyword research, UX – all that have an enormous impact on SEO and all those things can and often go wrong.
I’m not a big fan of giving people too many tools. We should try and make the technical part of SEO as easy as possible, but we should encourage people to think about which words they should be ranking for, and what their customers are searching for. I think you’ll get more results from that than from adding another tool to your arsenal.